Mikumi National Park: January 22-23, 2011

If only Mikumi National Park were closer to Dar es Salaam, I find myself saying in the midmorning after already four hours of driving. Then, we could slip out of the city on Friday for the entire weekend, instead of only for one night. I could also put a serious dent in the park's bird list, the surface of which I've barely scratched in my three visits. It's tough working long hours during the week, only to shake oneself awake on Saturday morning for a predawn escape from the heat and traffic of east Africa's busiest port city. The promise of birds, both new and old, and even more spectacular game like lion and wild dog, though, is stronger than any coffee I might be sipping as I dart past tractors and trucks along the road. The allure of Mikumi was particularly strong this weekend as the rains had finally soaked into the grasslands of the Mkata Plain, sprouting green grass almost waist high in areas where previously there had been only dry chaff and dusty dirt.

Opting for new accommodation to pair with the change in scenery, Aimee and I stayed at the only tented camp deep within the park's boundaries, Foxes Safari Camp, far from the busy road that passes through the heart of the protected area. From here, we planned to do a few game drives and enjoy the wildlife from the patio of our platform, upon which sat an oversized furnished canvas tent. Indeed, staying in a luxurious tent is practically half the fun of going on safari in east Africa, although it's easy enough to find budget accommodation outside most parks and reserves. In these colonial bush camps, I can't help myself sometimes from speaking in clipped sentences stripped of adjectives and staring off into the distance as if towards the snows of Kilimanjaro. Aimee doesn't go for that Hemingway crap, though, and she usually snaps me out of my charade when I start using sexist language. One thing's for sure: we're certainly not roughing it out here on our birding trips.

The entrance of the park, near the waterhole in front of Mikumi Wildlife Camp, is arguably the most interesting area of the park in terms of wildlife, and each time we pass through the gate we always see something new and striking. This time it was a pair of challenging raptors to identify, the Eurasian Hobby and the melanistic Gabar Goshawk. The latter was particularly difficult, as the cere of the bird was clearly black instead of red, but I was forced to accept this anomaly due to the lack of alternatives. It's certainly a unwieldy method for identifying a bird species, eliminating all of the other five hundred possibilities, but it's not the first time I've had to resort to extreme measures to tick a new bird. Before moving on, we also noted a male Beautiful Sunbird chattering away noisily while flashing it's showy chest in the sun.

After the initial rush of observations, we settled back in our seats to absorb the landscape, which was softened by grassy plains and leafy trees. Our last visit in November, the park was so barren and arid that Aimee was inspired to write a blog post entitled Death in Mikumi, containing gruesome photographs of starving antelope, salivating scavengers, and stripped carcasses. The dominant color this time was clearly green, and the game had spread out gloriously over the plain, instead of huddling together tightly at a watering hole. Of course, the predators were still out and about, and we shortly ran into two female lions resting in a drainage pipe along the road, breathing hard despite lying motionlessly in the relatively cool shade. One lioness was nursing a newborn cub, and it was clear from the wildebeest bones littered about that they were using this ditch as a camp of their own while the cub gained strength.

As we continued back towards Mwanamboga Waterhole, near where the camp is located, I was surprised not to see more birds. I had imagined huge flocks of whydahs were present in the rainy season with the males in magnificent breeding plumage, but aside from one flock of Pin-Tailed Whydahs I was generally disappointed by the volume of birdlife. Indeed, apart from one terrific Yellow-Throated Longclaw, we didn't see much of note after passing Millenium Dam, another waterhole where we spotted an African Darter. Arriving at the camp after a few hours of driving safari, we settled in to lunch in the huge thatched hut that sits on top of a rocky hill, referred to as a Stanley's Koppies, named after one of Africa's greatest but most problematic 19th century explorers. From this privileged vantage point, we could look out over the plains where several of his Arabic counterparts used to march prisoners off to the slave market on Zanzibar.

After a quick encounter with a Pearl-Spotted Owlet, followed by a long nap in the tent, we headed out for an evening game drive, exploring a circuit that passes the Mwanamboga Waterhole. Here we found a lovely colony of European Bee-Eaters, whose fashionable blue and chestnut plumage earned Aimee's approval. Later, we encountered a massive flock of Wattled Starlings, containing several hundred birds, including many males in their bizarre breeding plumage, complete with yellow mask and black wattle. A calling Black-Bellied Bustard rounded out the evening, which we had secretly hoped would end with a lion kill, as always. During dinner we were treated to the sound of a pair of African Scops-Owl, but I didn't have my act together to seriously go owling, an activity requiring so much more dedication than mere birding that it deserves its own name. Amazingly, the following morning we were more or less blanked on our morning game drive and opted to skip back to Dar to enjoy the late afternoon at the pool. As if it were only that easy.

Notable birds seen: Northern Pied Babbler, European Bee-Eater, Tropical Boubou, Red-Billed Buffalo-Weaver, Black-Bellied Bustard, Southern Cordon-Bleu, White-Browed Coucal, African Darter, Bateleur, Long-Tailed Fiscal, African Grey Flycatcher, Gabar Goshawk, Helmeted Guineafowl, Hamerkop, Black-Headed Heron, Eurasian Hobby, African Hoopoe, African Grey Hornbill, Southern Ground Hornbill, Common Kestrel, Grey Kestrel, Crowned Lapwing, Blacksmith Lapwing, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Pearl-Spotted Owlet, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, European Roller, Lilac-Breasted Roller, White-Browed Sparrow-Weaver, Red-Necked Spurfowl, Greater Blue-Eared Starling, Superb Starling, Wattled Starling, Marabou Stork, Open-Billed Stork, Beautiful Sunbird, Scarlet-Chested Sunbird, Barn Swallow, Black-Crowned Tchagra, African White-Backed Vulture, White-Faced Whistling-Duck, Pin-Tailed Whydah.

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